If You’re Cold, They’re Cold. Lift Them In.


Some things are great when cold. Iced tea, ice cream, a dish of revenge. What’s not good cold is gunning your engine when you first start your car at -20 degrees. Also not good cold: your barbell lifts. Warm them up right!

Barbell lifts are a demanding physical event. We want to get the most out of the time invested training them. We want to push the body against a heavy enough load so that it adapts in preparation for even greater resistance in the future. We should hope that we are still lifting and playing into our 90s, so for long-term training we want to make sure we move well, practice good technique and reduce the potential for injury. A proper warm-up is essential to accomplish this. 

The warm-up generates heat, as the name implies. Warm muscle bellies simply move better. Lesser load movements encourage blood flow into the tissues and loosen up tight movement patterns. The practice of progressively heavier reps with high quality form dial in the technique that will be needed when the weight is much heavier, and we want our lifting form well-honed. 

Since most of the lifts we do are performed standing, they require that we are balanced and stable in order to generate the most force against the bar. Just standing upright, our body is instinctively aware of our center of gravity and works to keep us from falling. When we hold a heavy bar in our hands overhead, on our shoulders, or down against the front of our thighs, the center of gravity changes. It continues to change as the weight increases and we move that heavy bar through the intended effective range of motion. A warm-up that builds appropriately gives the body an opportunity to adjust to this changing center so that when it’s time to hit the heaviest planned weight, we get there with all cylinders firing!

When someone first starts out barbell training the loads are fairly light. Warm-up weights and work sets (the heaviest weights) may only be separated by 10-15lbs. As the top sets increase, the warm-ups need to adjust accordingly, in both number of sets and poundage increases. Consider the following beginner doing back squats.

45lb empty bar x 5 reps

55lb x 5 reps

65lb x 5 reps x 3 sets (the work sets)

As time and lifting continues, our heroic and dedicated lifter progresses to a work set weight of 185lbs. It simply wouldn’t do to approach the lifts as 45lb x 5, 55lb x 5 then 185lb x 5 reps x 3 sets (nor would 45lb x 5, 175 x 5, 185 x 5 reps). It would feel quite awful. A good guideline is to have a warm-up set for every 40-50lbs of target work set weight. So a set at 185lb could have 3 or 4 warm-ups building up to it. With the exception of the deadlift, all lifts should start with reps using the empty bar (we might not even count these as a warm-up though it is still important to do them). 

45lb empty bar x 5 reps

95lb x 5 reps

125 x 4 reps

145 x 3 reps

160 x 2 reps

185lb x 5 x 3 sets (the work sets) 

It should be noted here that we can move through these lighter sets relatively quickly, since they are light. From an empty bar to 125, it can be done in less than 4 minutes. The last 2 warm-ups can take 3 to 4 minutes so that in about 10 minutes we are ready to hit up the first of our working sets. Notice the tapering of the reps from 5 to 2. The goal of the warm-up is to prepare, not exhaust. We want to build up steam and momentum so that we are ready for that 185.

When our hero is working with 300lbs on the bar, what would an appropriate warm-up be? A good percentage progression can be as follows, using the first work set weight as 100%:

50-55% x 5 reps (this may be just the bar)

65-70% x 4-5 reps

75-80% x 3 reps

85-90% x 1-3 reps 

92-93% x 1-2 reps optional

100% x the intended reps for that day

OK, for illustrative purposes, here we go:

45lb empty bar x 5 reps

135 x 5 reps

195 x 5 reps

225 x 3 reps

255 x 2-3 reps

280 x 1-2 reps

300 x 5 reps

Does it make sense?

Yes, you can round off the weights, they don’t need to be the precise percentage. And if you only have 40lbs separating the empty bar and the work weight, you obviously don’t need 4 warm-up sets. 

We want to keep adding weight to the bar for as long as we are effectively able to, and applying  a proper warm-up goes a long way to setting the stage for when the heaviest weight of the day steps into the spotlight. 

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